Three Broken Promises


Bantam
December 31, 2013
Series:
Commitment. That’s what I really want from Colin. Ever since my brother, Danny, died in Iraq, Colin’s done so much to help me, including giving me a job at his popular restaurant so I can leave my crappy waitressing job at the strip joint. But lying in bed with him every night to comfort him from his horrible nightmares isn’t enough anymore. I know he feels guilty about Danny’s death, about not going to Iraq, but I can’t keep living this double life. I love him desperately, but he’s got so many demons, and if he can’t open up to me now, then he’ll never be the real partner I need him to be. I gave him a month, and now I’m out of here. If he truly loves me like he says, he knows where to find me.
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Excerpt

Prologue

I don’t want to let her go.

She’s going to leave me and I can’t stand the thought. I’ve been coasting through life, confident with the fact that she’s always there. Working with me, living with me, talking with me, laughing with me, and sometimes, in those rare moments we never talk about, late late at night when we’re all alone, crying with me.

Lying in my bed, wound around me like a vine wrapped around a trellis. Her hands in my hair and her breath on my neck, making me feel so alive I want to tell her how I feel. Tell her what she makes me feel.

But I’ve never had the courage to confess.

Now, she’s leaving. Wants her freedom, she claims. As if I’ve been holding her down, holding her back. I’m offended when I know I shouldn’t be. She’s not ungrateful. She appreciates everything I’ve done for her. And I’ve done a lot—probably too much.

Guilt eats away at my insides. I started doing everything for her out of that sense of guilt. Truthfully, it’s my fault she left her family. My fault she ended up all alone, on her own, struggling to make it until I swept back into her life like some sort of Prince Charming on my mighty steed, saving her from a world of shit.

As time went on, the guilt I felt slowly but surely morphed into something else.

Something real.

I have to be honest and tell her how I feel. I need her. Desperately. Losing her would be like losing a part of me. I can’t risk it. I think…holy shit, I’m in love with her.

But I’m the last guy she should be with. I have this way of ruining those I’m closest to. No way could I do that to her.

No way can I let her leave me either.

Chapter One

Jen

“So why a butterfly?”

I lean forward, my boobs smashed against the back of the chair. I’ve been sitting here for what feels like hours, a needle pressing relentlessly into the sensitive skin on the back of my neck. The needle’s buzz fills my head, drowning out all the chaotic noise that usually occupies it.

I much prefer that incessant buzz. Easier to deal with compared to the endless stream of questions and worries that run through my brain.

“Yo, earth to Jen.” Fable waves her hand in front of my face, then snaps her fingers twice. Brat. I wish I could smack her but I’m too busy griping my knees, bare knuckling them like a little wimp.

“What?” I grit out from between clenched teeth, wincing when the needle sketches over a particular sensitive part.

Oh, who am I kidding? All the parts are sensitive. Time to face facts. I’m a complete weenie. I thought getting a tattoo would be a cinch. I’ve dealt with a lot of emotional pain in my life, not too much physical. What’s an hour or so sitting in a chair under a needle?

Apparently, it’s pretty shitastic, considering how much it hurts, and how much I have to gird my loins to get through it all.

Gird my loins—something silly my mom used to say. Back when she was happy and carefree and our family was whole.

“I want to know why you chose a butterfly for your tattoo. What’s the meaning behind it,” Fable says, sounding beyond irritated with me though she’s smiling so I know she’s not. She came with me downtown to Tattoo Voodoo, the little shop she recommended we go and get our tattoos at.

She got one too but she’s already finished, considering it was only a line written in elegant, simple script. A surprise tattoo for her boyfriend, fiancé, whatever you want to call him, though considering they can’t keep their hands off each other for too long, I’m guessing he’ll discover his “surprise” sooner rather than later. Drew Callahan is so madly in love with her, it’s sort of disgusting.

But it’s also cute. Super, super cute, especially with the poems he writes for her. How they make Fable swoon and nothing makes that girl swoon. She’s pretty hardcore. She’s had to be, what with the things life has dealt her.

I could take a lesson or two from her. I’m too soft. I let people in.

And then they stomp all over me. Or worse, ignore me completely.

“Freedom,” I finally tell her, exhaling loudly when the buzzing stops and I feel the washcloth brush across my freshly tattooed skin. “I’m ready to break free of this stifling cocoon called my life and find my own way, instead of relying on someone else. A butterfly’s a perfect representative of that, don’t you think?”

I can practically taste it. Freedom. I’ve always relied too heavily on others. My friends. My family. My brother especially, not that I can anymore considering he’s been gone for awhile now. I might’ve run away that one time and tried to do it on my own but I failed.

Spectacularly.

Not this time around though. I thought things through. I saved money. This time, I have a plan.

“You really believe leaving is the best thing for you?” Fable asks, her voice incredulous, her expression…sad. She’s my closest friend, the first real friend I made after I ran away from my old life. But even she doesn’t know everything.

Nodding, I wince when the tattoo artist—Dave—wipes the washrag across my skin yet again. “Finished,” he says matter-of-factly.

“I can’t stay here forever. Even though you want me to,” I murmur, sending a pleading look in Fable’s direction. I don’t want the lecture again, especially in front of our new friend Dave. I don’t think I can stand it. I know she means well but the words she says halfway convince me I need to stay every single time I hear them.

“I’m not the only one who wants you to stay,” Fable points out, brows raised, knowing look on her face.

Her statement doesn’t need an answer. I know who she’s referring to. He’d want me to stay with him indefinitely but I haven’t even told him I’m leaving yet. I’ll tell him tonight.

Hopefully.

He provides the place I live, the job I work at. He does it all with no strings attached, or so he claims. Really, I believe him. A deep, dark secret part of me wishes there were strings. Plenty of strings that tie me to him, bind me to him until we become such a part of each other we’d become one long word. Not just Jen. Not just Colin.

JenandColin.

No way is that gonna happen.

So if I can’t have him—and really, I shouldn’t want him, I’ve allowed myself to become completely dependent on someone for far too long—then I’m going to claim my freedom completely.

Stupid and risky and totally freakin’ scary but…I need to do it.

Desperately needing to change the subject, I ask, “How does it look?”

Fable tilts her head, examining the tattoo on the back of my neck. “It’s beautiful. But you’ll never really see it.”

“There’s such a thing as mirrors.” I take the very one Dave is handing to me and I look into it, see my reflection bouncing off the mirror on the wall. My long hair is piled on top of my head in a sloppy bun, revealing my neck, the reddened skin, the butterfly.

It’s a delicate sketch, a gentle shade of blue and black, looking as if it could somehow flutter its wings and fly right off my skin. If I like it this much now, imagine how awesome it’ll look when the skin is healed?

“I love it,” I breathe as I hand back the mirror to Dave, who sets it on the counter beside him.

“It’s pretty,” Fable agrees with a smile on her face. “I’m proud of you, Jen. I know you were scared to come here.”

Petrified more like, but now I’m proud too. I did it. I got a tattoo and I didn’t cry or run out of the shop before big, burly Dave got his needle on me, which I was afraid I might do. Kind of stupid, to be proud of something like this. If my mom ever sees it, she’ll flip out. Not that I plan on seeing her anytime soon. I have a feeling Colin won’t really like it either.

But I didn’t get the tattoo for anyone else. Just me.

Dave’s now placing a bandage on my fresh tattoo, rattling off the care instructions in a monotone voice, as if he’s said this before a million times, which he probably has. He hands me a sheet of paper with instructions listed on it and I glance it over, not really seeing the words. My brain too occupied with those in my life I wish I could please but rarely do.

They haunt me, hang out in my head like ghosts I can’t get rid of. Even Colin makes an appearance there, which is dumb considering I live with the man.

Fable’s cell rings and from the smile that pops onto her face, I know it’s Drew. I watch her step away to talk to him privately and jealousy clutches at my heart, making it hurt.

I want that, though I’d never admit it out loud and certainly not to Fable. Unconditional love, a man who would do anything—and I mean anything—to ensure I’m happy. Safe. Secure. Loved.

If I’m being honest with myself, I could probably have that with Colin. Maybe. I don’t know.

He acts like he wants more, but then he always pulls back. I’ve shared more intimate moments with him than anyone else in my entire life. I’ve slept in his bed. He’s held me close. He’s kissed me…but nothing beyond the sort of kiss a brother bestows on his sister’s cheek or forehead.

Confirmation that’s all he’ll ever think of me. We grew up together, Colin and I. Well, Danny, Colin and I. My brother and Colin were best friends. They were supposed to join the Marines together but Danny was the only one who ended up going into the service. Then he went to Iraq.

And never came back.

Tonight, I’m giving a months’ notice to Colin. More than enough time for him to find a replacement waitress. That’s also more than enough time for me to find a new apartment, a new job, and a new life in a new city. I know exactly where I’m going so it’s not like I’m flying by the seat of my pants and changing my life on a whim.

Colin’s going to be angry but maybe, just maybe, the tattoo will give me strength. Will remind me that what I’m doing is the right thing. I need to go. I need to really learn how to live my life on my own, not this childish running away shit and living out of my car like I did last time. I’m older now. Smarter. Wiser.

I need to fly and be free.

Colin

The restaurant is hopping. Late August and the students are back in earnest, which means The District is back in business. The bar is packed, my staff is hustling and the kitchen is a steamy pit of never ending appetizers, giant plates being taken out again and again, since it seems none of the customers want a full meal tonight.

They all want to get their drink on. Celebrating being back at school, or drowning their misery in alcohol because they’re…back at school.

I don’t care which it is, as long as they keep buying drinks and leaving hefty tips for the hardworking staff, I’m satisfied.

“Hey, you’re the owner right?”

Glancing up, I see a pretty girl standing in front of me, a hopeful smile on her face. She probably wants a job. I just hired a new hostess late last week so at the moment I’m not looking but I always give out applications. You never know when you’re going to lose someone and good help is hard to find. “I am,” I answer, returning her smile, my gaze dropping to take her all in. Check her out.

She’s attractive. Not make my heart feel like it’s seizing in my chest gorgeous but not put a paper bag over her face while I bang her either. I like the way she looks at me.

So I look at her back.

“I thought so.” She takes a step closer, leaning her forearms against the hostess station counter, plumping up her breasts, which threaten to spill out of her skimpy top. I keep my gaze fixed on her face for as long as I can, tomorrow’s printed out schedule clutched in my hand forgotten. It’s already near eleven and the kitchen’s just closed, which means I can get the hell out of here if I want to.

But I don’t. Jen’s scheduled till midnight so I’ll wait for her and give her a ride home. Like I always do.

“Are you looking for a job? We don’t have any positions available at the moment.” Finally, I let my guard down and let my gaze drop, blatantly studying her cleavage. It’s been a while. Hell, I seriously can’t remember the last time I got laid. And with where I work, the endless stream of women that come in on a daily basis, I’m not being an asshole when I say I could get laid anytime I want.

Not being an arrogant prick, just stating fact.

She still hasn’t answered me. “Let me grab you an application.” Leaning down, I reach for the stack of blank applications on the shelf when the girl laughs and shakes her head.

“I’m not interested in a job. I’m interested in you,” she says point blank.

Blinking, I stand up straight, studying her. The smile curving her glossy peach-colored lips is coy, the look in her eyes hot. As in, she’s definitely interested in what she sees.

Women rarely leave me at a loss for words but lately I’ve not been myself. Despite my hang ups, despite my not wanting to disappoint the one woman who means the world to me, I like what I see too.

I’ve fucked plenty of women and this one standing in front of me looks ripe for the picking. She smells good, looks good and the gleam in her eye tempts. Invites.

I’m no saint. Some might even call me a man whore, though that’s more in my past and not my present. What can I say? I like women and they usually like me. I’m not stupid. This pretty face of mine has gotten me into trouble. Both the good and the bad kind.

Only one woman is off limits though. I might be an asshole but I at least have a small amount of scruples left within me. Besides, there has to be something untouchable and holy in my world, right? She’s it.

Just thinking of her makes my heart sink, my interest in this woman in front of me wither up and blow away like a dead and dried up leaf.

That’s all it takes. Think of Jen and I’m done for.

“Uh, I’m flattered but…” I run a hand through my hair, wondering how I’m going to let her down easy. I’ve never had to do this before. When a woman’s interested, I usually let it happen. I let her in. Not all the way but just enough so we both get what we want.

I let no one in all the way. Jen’s the only one who’s ever gotten close. I still keep her at an arm’s length though, for the most part. Except for those quiet, intimate moments in the dark, when the despair threatens to overwhelm and she sneaks into my room to offer me comfort.

Those moments I keep to myself. We’ve never talked about them. They’re like our dirty little secret.

“So I guess you have a girlfriend?” The woman laughs, cocks her head. She has dark blonde hair, with perfect curls that tumble past her shoulders. Her makeup is subtle, her outfit tempting. A few months ago, she would’ve been my type. I would’ve had her naked and been buried deep inside her within an hour of this meeting, if not sooner.

Anonymous sex doesn’t appeal any more. The woman I want I can’t really have. Correction, I don’t let myself have her. So instead of having her naked and me buried deep inside her like I desperately wish for, I suffer. Like a true martyr.

Or try more like a true asshole.

Clearing my throat, I decide to be honest. “I—”

“He does.” Jen appears beside me as if I conjured her up like a magical spell, made of smoke and mirrors and so much beauty it hurts to look at her. She curls a slender arm around mine, her fingers settling on my biceps and my skin burns where she touches me. Nestling in close, that sexy body of hers is plastered to mine, making me sweat, making my skin tighten. She’s wearing a mysterious smile and a defiant glare in her dark brown eyes that would deter even the most aggressive female on the planet.

The look clearly says, back the fuck off, he’s mine.

Hell, I wish.

“Sorry.” The girl doesn’t sound sorry at all as she pushes away from the counter and walks off, shaking her head. “Didn’t mean to step on any toes.”

“Keep walking. Nothing to see here,” Jen calls after her as the girl disappears back into the bar. She releases her hold on me, stepping away and I feel the loss keenly. “God. Don’t you ever get sick of that?”

“Sick of what? Women hitting on me?” I once lived for that shit every night. Flirting, drinking, beautiful women, they all helped me forget what I’d done. How I disappointed an entire family. How I abandoned my best friend and he ended up dead.

My fault. All of it.

“Yes.” She sounds irritated, looks hot. The simple black dress she wears accentuates her curves, stops about mid-thigh and showcases those endless legs of hers. Legs I’d like to have naked and wrapped around my hips. “She’s been circling you for the last twenty minutes like she’s a shark and you’re blood in the water.”

I hadn’t noticed. Am I dick for liking that Jen had? This hint of a jealous streak is new. “I would’ve taken care of her.”

“By what? Inviting her back to the house?”

Glancing around, I’m thankful no one’s left in the restaurant, everyone’s moved on into the bar. I don’t need anyone witnessing this exchange. The rumor mill at The District is bad enough. Jen and I don’t need to add fuel to the fire. They already talk about us. Wondering what the heck we’re doing, if we’re together.

“I don’t do that. Not when you’re there,” I finally say, my gaze meeting hers once more. “Since when do you care?”

Wrong thing to say. She looks ready to blow up—all over me. “So you’d do it if I wasn’t there? Is that what you’re saying? God, you’re such an ass,” she mutters as she stalks off.

I follow her, my gaze zeroing in on the back of her head. Her long brown hair is down tonight, but I see the edge of a white bandage peeking out between the thick, silky strands. “What happened to you?”

She glances over her shoulder with a withering stare. “What are you talking about?”

“The bandage.” I grab hold of her arm and stop her in her tracks. She almost stumbles, what with the high heels she’s wearing. “Did you hurt yourself?”

She reaches for her neck with her free hand, rubbing the back of it self –consciously, a little frown wrinkling her brows. “I, uh…it’s nothing.”

Crossing my arms in front of my chest, I block her from ditching me. “You’re hiding something from me.”

“I really don’t want to do this here.” She blows out a harsh breath and I wonder what the hell she’s talking about. “Can’t we talk about this when we get home?”

“Talk about what?” I’m confused. Where is she going with this?

Jen throws her arms up in the air, frustration written all over her beautiful face. “Fine. Let’s do this. I need to give my notice, Colin. I’m quitting.”